So where are the Washington Nationals headed?
Just a couple of months ago, the team was five games over .500 and seemed both ready and able to remain competitive until Stephen Strasburg joined the squad and Jason Marquis, Chien-Ming Wang, Jordan Zimmermann, and Ross Detwiler regained their health.
The Nationals could then move some of their surplus starters into the bullpen and trade away the rest for players who could plug some of the holes on the 25-man roster.
It was thought that the team could then at least remain on the cusp of contention for the rest of the season.
Of course, that never happened. The team went from five games over .500 to 10 games under in just a few days.
Well, it seemed like that anyway.
Now obituaries for the 2010 Nationals are being written across the Internet as you read this.
So which is it? Is this a much improved team or just a carbon copy of the past two years of frustration?
I say forget the past month. But I also say that for the team to redeem itself—and quickly—a few changes need to be made.
The team can get back to .500 by the end of the season, but the front office can’t wait much longer before changing direction.
First, the Ian Desmond experiment needs to come to an end, but just for now. Though I still believe that he will be a top-notch major league shortstop, his poor play has to be eating at his confidence, and his 19 errors are sure hurting the team.
There is nothing wrong with Cristian Guzman finishing the year at short. He doesn’t get to many of the balls that Desmond does, but those he does get to usually turn into outs.
Though Adam Kennedy hasn’t played particularly well thus far (.238/.317/.319), his career 162-game average is .276-8-57. I think that if he plays every day, he’ll play well.
Nyjer Morgan has to go too.
Look, I love the guy’s attitude and I love his energy and I love his love for the game. But I think we have a large enough sample now to be able to say that he just doesn’t have solid baseball skills. He gets picked off first too often. He takes bad routes to fly balls. He throws to the wrong bases.
And that was just last week.
Roger Bernadina deserves to start in center, and Michael Morse needs the opportunity to show if he is an everyday major leaguer.
Here is my starting lineup with their current statistics expanded to a full 162-game season:
1B—Adam Dunn: .271-36-96
2B—Adam Kennedy: .238-6-45
SS—Cristian Guzman: .295-3-44
3B—Ryan Zimmerman: .285-29-89
LF—Josh Willingham: .276-30-92
CF—Roger Bernadina: .290-18-80
RF—Mike Morse: .340-30-60
C—Pudge Rodriguez: .301-2-46
Kennedy’s numbers look a little anemic, but given the opportunity to play every day, he’d probably end up hitting near .260 by season’s end, perhaps a little better.
Morse’s stats are skewed because he has just 50 at-bats, but his career 162-game average is .299-10-60 with a .360 on-base percentage and a .425 slugging mark.
Desmond would need to return to the minors to regain his confidence, but Morgan could remain as a backup outfielder, at least for the remainder of the season.
We know that the bullpen is strong, one of the strongest in baseball. It can be the rudder that leads the team back to respectability. No major changes here.
That leaves us with the starting rotation.
Stephen Strasburg is the ace and will wow the league until sometime in early September, when the Nationals will shut him down to save his arm. By that time, former No. 1 pitching prospect Jordan Zimmermann will be ready to take his spot in the rotation.
Zimmermann—who underwent Tommy John surgery almost a year ago—begins his rehab process next week. No, he’s not Stephen Strasburg, but he will be a solid No. 2 major league starter.
Sometime in the next month or two, Jason Marquis will be ready to return to the rotation. He is a former All-Star and will give the team a chance to win every time he starts.
Chien-Ming Wang, who has twice won 19 games in a season, can be a solid No. 3 during the season’s second half.
John Lannan’s struggles in 2010 are an anomaly. He is one of just a handful of major league starters who have finished the last two seasons with an ERA under 4.00 and is near the top of the quality starts list as well.
Lannan pitched very well in his first game with Double-A Harrisburg and should return to Washington sooner rather than later.
Lannan—this season’s Opening Day starter—now becomes the team’s No. 4 starter.
The team could then fill the final spot in the rotation with Livan Hernandez (6-4, 3.10), Luis Atilano (6-4, 4.33), Craig Stammen (2-2, 5.13), or J.D. Martin (0-3, 3.03).
The recent bad times for the Washington Nationals cannot be underplayed, to be sure. However, the problems are easy to pinpoint. The defense can’t be fixed overnight, but it can be patched with the changes at short, second, and center field.
The offense, one of the better groups in the league over the first third of the season, suddenly stopped hitting. That happens sometimes. But they seem to be coming out of their collective funk and might be back to their early season form.
But if the starting rotation can indeed be improved through the additions of the walking wounded—Zimmermann, Wang, Marquis, Detwiler, and Scott Olsen—this could be a team capable of having a sizzling second half.
Sure, there needs to be a little bit of luck involved, but it is not out of the realm of possibility to see the team play above .500 in the season’s second half.
To make it to 81 wins, the Nationals will have to go 47-37 over the next three months.
Is it possible?
If the injured starters return on time, and if they return at their pre-injury levels, and if general manager Mike Rizzo and manger Jim Riggleman are willing to take a chance and redo their up-the-middle defense, then yes. It is possible.
75 wins is more likely, but if they can find a tailwind come August, an 81-81 season is within their grasp.
Here’s to hoping.